Short-Circuiting Peer Review in Climate Science

Peter Wood

How reliable are the scientific findings on which the Environmental Protection Agency bases its proposed regulations?   According to a new research report, many of the findings connected to the EPA’s attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions may be compromised by a short-circuiting of peer review.

That question and that answer may seem far afield from NAS’s usual concerns, but there is an important connection.  Or actually three important connections.  Much of the science involved is university-based research.  The problems surfaced by the new report reveal weakness in academic peer review.  And NAS is engaged in an in-depth examination of the campus sustainability movement. 

But first things first.  NAS holds no position on anthropogenic global warming (AGW).  As an organization, we are neither supporters nor skeptics of the thesis.  Likewise we have no policy position on whether the EPA should regulate greenhouse gas emissions. 

Rather, we are a body devoted to maintaining academic standards and protecting academic freedom.  And it is in that light that we are troubled by the recent research from the Institute for Trade, Standards, and Sustainable Development (ITSSD) that indicates that much of the U.S.-sponsored research behind the “scientific consensus” on global warming may be less rigorous than its advocates would have the public believe.

The Campus Sustainability Movement

Before we turn to ITSSD’s report, however, let’s consider the campus context, where enthusiasm for the AGW hypothesis runs high.  That enthusiasm fuels the campus sustainability movement, though the movement has other concerns as well.   What makes sustainability so popular on college campuses? 

First popularity begets popularity.  The movement has all the advantages of being successful.  Second, the sustainability movement is the heir apparent of the much older environmental movement. As such it enjoys the good will of everyone concerned about clean air and water, fighting pollution, and keeping toxins out of our lives.  Third, the sustainability movement serves as a wheelhouse for many of the progressive causes that animate politically-minded college students. Third-wave feminism, managed economics, social justice, and issues of identity groups all find an ideological home within the concept of “sustainability.”

But those three elements—self-reinforcing popularity, the glow of old-style environmentalism, and the cachet of progressive politics—wouldn’t go very far without the motor of belief in looming world-wide catastrophe as a result of manmade global warming. Very few of the students who subscribe to this thesis command the knowledge of physics, atmospheric science, chemistry, oceanography, and computer modeling to have well-founded opinions on whether AGW is real.  Rather, they have to rely on the authoritative-sounding claims coming from scientists and government officials.

So it indeed matters a great deal how credible those claims are. 

ITSSD Skepticism

On Tuesday the ITSSD (pronounced itz-d) released a white paper that questions the value of a number of influential scientific research projects. ITSSD waded through a dense thicket of federal acronyms and legal documents to determine how much money taxpayers have spent on federally-funded climate research and how rigorous and useful that research has been. ITSSD concluded that on numerous counts, government research agencies and their constituent university researchers compromised the peer review process that is the foundation of intellectual standards in scientific research and that is also required by U.S. law. According to the paper,

Detailed addenda accompanying ITSSD FOIA requests filed with EPA and DOC-NOAA during March – May 2014 strongly suggest that the peer review science processes EPA and DOC-NOAA had employed in vetting the USGCRP and other federal and IPCC agency assessments supporting the EPA’s Endangerment Findings did not comply with U.S. law. In other words, such peer review processes did not satisfy Information Quality Act and relevant OMB, EPA and DOC-NOAA implementing IQA guidelines standards applicable to highly influential scientific assessments (“HISAs”).

Readers unfazed by legal jargon and lengthy acronyms may read the full paper here. For all others, below is a brief summary of the findings.

The essence of ITSSD’s findings is that it appears that the EPA and some other federal agencies validate each other’s work, which is pretty much the same thing as validating their own work.  The circle appears unbroken.  Independent review of assertions of scientific fact is by no means guaranteed and might even be precluded.  But we don’t really know because the public is denied any clear account of who is validating what.   Apparent conflicts of interest are hidden away and the EPA stonewalls requests for disclosures. 

That puts things in more straightforward language than ITSSD uses but is pretty clearly what ITSSD means.  By way of detail, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) comprises thirteen federal research agencies. It has received approximately $2.5 billion in federal funding each year for the last three years, which it then distributes to its constituent agencies. Of this money, NASA has been receiving approximately 56%, and the Department of Commerce (DOC) and National Science Foundation (NSF) have each been receiving about 13%, in addition to other direct federal grants. The USGCRP also supports the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC), which releases periodic climate assessments that set the tone for many national and international environmental policies.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (operated under the DOC) are two of several organizations that provide peer review for the USGCRP, IPCC, and other assessments that serve as the basis for the EPA’s Endangerment Findings.  According to the 2010 Climate Assessment Report that the U.S. submitted to the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), the USGCRP projects were “extensively reviewed by scientists, federal agency officials, stakeholders, and the general public.” But, as detailed in another ITSSD publication (and summarized by NAS), the peer review processes were compromised, flawed, not transparent, and potentially biased—despite the fact that federal laws and regulations require the EPA to back its findings with rigorous, peer-reviewed science.

Nevertheless, the federal government continues to fund these research projects, and Congress in the fiscal year 2015 Appropriations bill (H.R. 4660) approved funding increases for NSF ($233 million increase), NASA ($250 million increase), and NOAA ($10.5 million increase).

Given the poor scientific process used to develop research and analysis in support of the EPA’s environmental regulations, the ITSSD poses the question: “Why should Congress continue to fund the U.S. Global Change Research Program (“USGCRP”) and Federal Agency Climate Science-related Research?”

To this, we add a question of our own: In light of the compromised research backing sustainability and environmental regulations, should American colleges and universities continue to pay for expensive infrastructure upgrades, emissions-cutting projects, and sustainability offices? 

Image: Public Domain

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